CURRENT ISSUE | WINTER 2018: CARE AND WELLNESS
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The Berlin Biennale: Reality Check

Hans Schabus Klub Europa 2010 Installation view Courtesy the artist, Engholm Galerie Vienna & Galerie Jocelyn Wolff Paris © Hans Schabus / photo Uwe Walter

Today it seems like everybody is looking for a way out from under the dominant and oppressive structures of a neo-liberalism gone wild. Vienna- and Berlin-based curator Kathrin Rhomberg seems to be looking too; her exhibition “What is Waiting Out There,” the sixth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, attempts to tease out the question of art’s relationship to reality.

Rhomberg’s curatorial premise, which is fleshed out in the exhibition catalogue and an e-flux journal edited by long-time collaborator Marion von Osten, questions our willingness to perpetuate “the public lie as a supposed necessity” to sustaining some sort of idea of reality. She argues that self-deception—be it social, political or individual—has become both a prerequisite for survival and a sure path to resignation and reproduction of the status quo. Slipping between amorphous definitions of reality, realism and the real, “What is Waiting Out There” attempts to widen the cracks and fissures of our reality—the reality of freedom, equality and human rights, which actually seems increasingly unreal—to ask what the possibilities might be for imagining and imaging a new reality now. “What is Waiting Out There” seems to assume that realism is inherently political because within it there is always the question of what is real, as well as the question of how that is decided and who gets to make those decisions. The exhibition asks whether it is possible for art, for transnational solidarities and for postidentarian subjectivities to make disparate realities perceivable, and thereby envision a reality beyond neo-liberalism.

Perhaps in an attempt to take us back to reality—back to “the beginning of the beginning,” as Slovenian leftist theorist Slavoj Žižek might say—Rhomberg’s “What is Waiting Out There” examines the cycles of history within the context of art, social structures, politics and economics, and perhaps provides us a lens through which we can imagine a post-capitalist self. This biennale spans more than a century of artistic practice to include works by 43 contemporary artists, Pierre Bal-Blanc’s three-day participatory performance The Living Currency, and “Extreme Realism,” an exhibition of intimate drawings and gouaches by 19th century Prussian artist Adolph Menzel that was curated by noted art historian and American modernist art critic Michael Fried at the Alte Nationalgalerie.

In the context of a contemporary art biennale, the Menzel-focused “Extreme Realism,” which borrows its title from 19th century French critic Edmond Duranty, could be considered a bit of an anachronism. But it functions as an important footnote or conceptual anchor for “What is Waiting Out There.” Fried is drawn to the empathy in Menzel’s works and to the artist’s ability to project himself onto his world. Fried suggests that Menzel’s work creates “a physical connection with reality” and that the artwork “produces the reality it ostensibly records.” Using a display strategy that teeters between the studio and the cube, Fried radically intervenes in the existing permanent exhibition of Menzel’s paintings at the Alte Nationalgalerie by erecting a series of provisional white walls to exhibit 31 small preparatory sketches and detailed observational studies in a modernist, single-line hang. The content of these works is clearly tied to the history of modernism; it depicts the effects of rapid German industrialization and economic expansion in the mid 19th century. Detailed drawings of labourers’ often inhumane living and working conditions and graphic evidence of the ravages of war stand in sharp contrast to Menzel’s better-known images on the sheltered excesses of Crown Prince Frederick’s royal court. In fact, Fried’s selection awkwardly sets the stage for the permanent Menzel display—mainly genre scenes and paintings of the royal court, some of which were appropriated by Hitler’s propaganda after Menzel’s death—that occupies several baby-blue and gold-leafed ovoid rooms on the Alte Nationalgalerie’s ground floor. Normally, nothing of Menzel’s vast collection of drawings (there are approximately 7,000 in the National Museums in Berlin) is visible. The selection and display of the works in “Extreme Realism” call for a reconsideration of Menzel’s practice within the context of 19th century realism and the tradition of modern painting. But perhaps more importantly, Menzel’s keen observation of daily life squarely situates the artist as a political subject in the world: as a recorder of reality but also a creator of it, a notion that is a key underlying theme of the biennale itself.

More than a century after Menzel’s poignant studies, realism returns in Rhomberg’s selection of contemporary artists’ works. The exhibition atKunst-Werke, the biennale’s organizing institution, is dominated by Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s expansive sculpture, drawing and object installations The places I’m looking for my dear are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real and They are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens. A main house structure is built from actual lagging Halilaj’s family is using to build a new home in Prishtina; it’s a sign of a new beginning after the war. It is heroic in its scale, rising up through two floors of KW to integrate both the inside and outside of the space. Chickens run amok between the gallery and back garden. On KW’s second floor, one enters a completely empty white gallery space; a conceptual container resonates with the bourgeois constraints of the white cube, which is only disrupted by the participants’ presence and their view to the outside, where Halilaj’s structure is visible once again. The relationships between art and life, and between representation and reality, are seamlessly interwoven here, as is the transfer of cultural capital into the framework for a family’s new home. Halilaj’s work is typical of much of the sculptural/found-object installation work in the biennale—Adrian Lohmüller’s alchemical water system Das Haus bleibt stillRon Tran’s subtle reorganization of the park benches on Oranienplatz, and Marcus Geiger’s attic archeology Sozial Minimal Radikal Kapital—in that it mines and reconfigures the material and spatial histories of the site itself in an attempt to remodel its future.

Outside of KW, which is located in Berlin’s gentrified jewel Mitte, the Kreuzberg district becomes the primary backdrop for this year’s Berlin Biennale. The main venue, a former supermarket on Oranienplatz that has been vacant for a decade, stands as an empty sign of capital in an area of Berlin that, since the 1960s, has been a site of leftist resistance. Labour, immigration, queer and anti-capitalist demonstrations still occur regularly along Oranienstrasse and at Kottbusser Tor, Berlin’s first U-bahn station, which is encircled by high-density social housing that has mainly been occupied by Turkish immigrants since its 1970s construction. Kreuzberg and its neighbouring district Neukölln, to the south, remain home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. This part of Kreuzberg was also originally divided on three sides by the Berlin Wall, so it bridges the political, economic and social psychologies of the former east and west. Since the fall of the wall, the neighbourhood has experienced significant socio-economic changes to become a site of rapid cultural and capital investment.

In a city where many cultural activities are self-organized in disused spaces, the biennale’s occupation of Oranienplatz 17 seems almost natural: an opportunity that arises out of necessity. Yet the overtly political nature of the works inside suggests Rhomberg’s desire to engage conflicting realities of the site’s history and of the biennale itself, which has served as a marketing strategy for the city during its redevelopment. The work at Oranienplatz resonates with a time of crisis punctuated by the late-1980s collapse of communism in Europe, the events of 9-11 and the 2008 stock market crash, all of which is now coupled with Kreuzberg’s history of resistance. Yet if the current site of the biennale is to be read as a gesture of subversion within an existing symbol of capital, the reality of the situation is quickly brought back into focus. Black and white posters of biennale organizers read “Gentrifiziererin!” and paper the venues; they announce that the capital that sits at the corner of Oranienplatz 17 is now occupied by a cultural capital that is just as alienating to community residents as the business complex and high-end condo that will take hold when the area is inevitably “developed.” I could rant here, too, about the stiff exhibition fees that one has to pay repeatedly in order to actually see the entire exhibition; it’s an economic structure that does not recognize the Berlin Biennale’s largest audience—local artists who are almost without question poor.

Inside Oranienplatz 17, the very real effects of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe can be seen in UK artist Phil Collins’ documentary film marxism today (prologue). In it, Collins intercuts historical footage from East German political rallies with the stories of several former Marxist-Leninist teachers who had to totally reconstruct their lives and identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These empathetic personal biographies, many of which mourn the loss of a GDR way of life, make visible the enduring psychological and social effects that political ideologies have on our lives. Importantly, the second part of the project, which will create an empowering opportunity for participants to teach an introductory course on Marxism at Manchester high schools (Manchester was Friedrich Engels’ home from 1842 to 1844), recognizes a renewed interest in Marxism and asks what potential there might be in learning from the experience of others. Mark Boulos’ two-channel installation All That is Solid Melts Into Air takes its title from The Communist Manifesto and exposes the harsh reality of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Boulos draws a parallel between frenzied traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the empowering, militant dances and speeches of people in the Niger Delta. (The lives of Delta residents have been severely altered by Royal Dutch Shell’s oil operations in the region.) Here, the abstract monetary value of oil derivatives is re-entwined with the real effects of the labour and material circumstances of its production.

The sickening reality that contemporary neo-liberalism is tied to a commerce relying on the perpetuation of others’ misery also becomes the premise for Dutch artist Renzo Martens’ 90-minute self-reflexive documentary Episode III. The film captures the artist and multiple photojournalists as they travel through the Congo producing images for Western media of dead and dying in one of the poorest regions of the world. A fluorescent sign blinking “Enjoy please Poverty” brazenly announces their project wherever they go. The film proposes that Congo’s dire humanitarian conditions—widespread war, rape, starvation and extreme poverty—are the only “resource” left to the Congolese post-globalization, and that in this aspect, too, they are being exploited by others for capitalist profit. In an attempt to improve the economic situation of the community, Martens trains a small group of Congelese photographers to make images of their own misery for sale to foreign markets. In the end, however, the experiment fails—not because the images lack “quality,” but because the photographers are non-accredited and do not have access to Western distribution channels for the sale of their photographs. The project ends in resignation and despair, a return, in fact, to the reality of the way things are. Martens’ film takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride, but you are never sure where to direct your anger or your sorrow. His relationship to his subjects is ethically dubious and as a consumer of the film you become implicated as well. Episode III reveals the limits of representation and the extremely closed logic of late capitalism in all its ugliness.

These films and videos, as well as much of the photography in the exhibition, draws on documentary traditions, but the familiar objective distance or othering that documentary authority relies upon are often subverted. Collins, Boulos and Martens are clearly present in their works, as is Minerva Cuevas in Dissidence v 2.0 and Bernard Bazile inLes Manifs (Protest Marches). Bombastic in their presentation, Cuevas and Bazile draw on their ongoing and extensive archives of economic and labour protests in their respective cities of Mexico City and Paris to document collective action in public space. Separated only by geography, these artists are participants within the unified political resistance that they record.

The performing subject and reality as performance are recurring tropes in the biennale. The films of Avi Mograbi and Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir aggressively test the political and social limits of their subjects. Here the ubiquitous running camera becomes a weapon to cajole subjects into either revealing who they really are or into performing another self. Mograbi’s partly staged encounters with Israeli border guards reveal the recorder’s ambivalent political position. In Beyond Guilt, Sela and Amir instigate and voyeuristically record sexual encounters in Israeli bar toilets. Intimate sexual encounters intermingle with dialogues about war and power and are performed for the camera to bring personal and public conquest into close proximity. The camera’s transgressive potential is also unleashed in Mohamed Bourouissa’s Temps Mort, a series of enlarged cellphone photographs covertly shot by a prisoner and co-produced by Bourouissa. Produced over the course of a year, these images reveal the prisoner’s point of view and create a public space for psychic and imaginary liberty through images.

“What is Waiting Out There” has been criticized for being overly pessimistic and humourless, and for the most part it is. It is a tough show both in its content and in its pacing, which requires viewers to relentlessly watch dozens of hours of difficult footage with little time to think. The arrangement of works is often didactic and heavy-handed, making for an exhausting experience that nullifies the art’s potential poignancy and restricts dialogue. Yet even in Rhomberg’s reality, the apparent darkness of our time is sometimes illuminated by moments of levity and empathetic gesture. Anna Witt’s video Die GeburtFerhat Özgür’s video Metamorphosis Chat and Friedl Vom Gröller’s silent black-and-white 16-mm film Passage Briare all capture intimate encounters between the artists and their subjects. These short, charming films are about performing the identity of the other and they situate the artists’ subjectivities squarely in the frame.

Similarly, curator Marc Siegel’s selection of 24 films from San Francisco underground movie pioneer and video artist George Kuchar’s epic series Weather Diaries firmly situates the artist as both subject and narrator of his own reality. Since 1985, Kuchar has spent every May in a low-budget hotel in El Reno, Oklahoma’s “tornado alley,” watching the weather and monitoring his own scatological torrents. The films, which are appropriately tucked away in a working-class industrial park in west Kreuzberg, are low-budget too: shot and edited in camera on a consumer-grade machine, they champion a campy, homemade aesthetic that mashes up references to Hollywood movies with diaristic documentary form. Kuchar’s banal and often disjointed Weather Diariesreveal the gap between his projected desires and his actual existence.

Rhomberg’s support of significant solo shows by both Kuchar and Menzel in “What is Waiting Out There” makes a strong point about the continued relevance and return of realism, particularly in a time of crisis. Over a century apart, Kuchar and Menzel become curious counterparts in a biennale that attempts to resituate the dialogue about reality, realism and the real from the margins of history and politics to another extreme—a place with the potential to disrupt the all-encompassing lie that is our current reality.

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